Is Margaret Atwood a Science Fiction Writer?

Margaret Atwood says “now is not the time for realistic fiction,” but is her writing science fiction? She would deny it, preferring the more nebulous term, “speculative fiction.” Regardless, in many of her novels, even her more mainstream ones, she deals with what-if’s and what-might-be’s, rather than what is.

On the subject, Atwood says:

“I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid.”

Atwood is generally considered a literary writer by critics who wouldn’t dream of dipping into the genre ghetto, but she gets away with writing fiction that could easily be called science fiction. And she wins major awards for it! She doesn’t write only science fiction, though, but also tries her hand at other genres, such as historical fiction. Not many writers can be successful at genre-hopping, but more are trying it. Michael Chabon and Kazuo Ishiguro spring to mind.

handmaidscoverConsider, for instance, Atwood’s most well-known book, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which was nominated for the Booker Prize but won the Arthur C. Clarke Award the very first time it was given out. It is set in a dystopian future, in which the U.S. government has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists and a lot of basic rights have been stripped away. Due to extreme pollution, many people have become infertile. Those women who are fertile are enslaved as Biblical-style handmaids, conceiving and bearing children for wealthy, infertile women. Its dystopian, futuristic setting place it squarely in the science fiction tradition.

I think The Handmaid’s Tale was so successful and has been so widely read because its core message is a frightening warning about how quickly and easily the freedoms we take for granted can be stripped away. What struck me the last time I read it is the method of depriving women of their rights that was used: Their bank accounts were frozen, and electronic access to money was cut off. As we are well on our way to a cashless society, this struck me as an all-too-real danger, one we placidly accept.

the_blind_assassin_by_ekonkThe Blind Assassin (2000), which won the Booker Prize, is not as straightforward in terms of genre, but it does contain science fiction elements. Its structure is very unusual, in that it is a novel within a novel within a novel. The framing structure is a straightforward historical novel about a wealthy Canadian family’s fall from grace during the Depression and World War II. Within this novel is an intertwined story of two unnamed lovers and their clandestine affair. During their meetings, the lovers — one of whom is a pulp writer — tell each other a bizarre fable that takes place on an alien planet, which underscores their unspoken feelings for each other. The fable, titled The Blind Assassin, is turned into a novel by one of the characters and develops a cult-like following. The intricate structure makes this an engrossing novel, but it is questionable whether it can be called science fiction. Regardless, Atwood is comfortable using tropes of the genre in exciting and unusual ways when it suits her.

maddaddam1__140604211942With her more recent MaddAddam trilogyAtwood has a harder time making the case that she is not in fact writing science fiction. The dystopian future she imagines relies on the products of genetic engineering. A genuine mad scientist applies his eugenics research to create a race of people, then releases a bio-engineered virus to bring about the apocalypse. Her most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last, is another dystopia that was originally published in installments on the Internet.

I enjoy it when authors break the artificial boundaries of genre established by publishing companies and bookstores. Atwood’s fiction may transcend labels, but she speaks to those of us who love science fiction and its speculations on what might be.

Retrospective: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K.
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Ursula K. Le Guin is a prolific writer who since the 1960s has published many books in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, poetry, and nonfiction, for adults, young adults, and children. Her highly literate work tackles such hefty themes as gender, politics, philosophy, sociology, environmentalism, and religion. She has won five Hugos, six Nebulas, and 19 Locus awards (more than any other writer).

Le Guin first became well known for her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which is part of her Hainish Cycle of novels depicting a future galactic civilization and examining the effects of contact between very different cultures. In the novel, Le Guin creates the alien world of Gethen, or Winter, a cold planet populated by androgynous peoples who take on one gender or the other only during mating. Told from the point of view of a human visitor to Gethen, the book presents a fresh look at the function of gender in society and how it affects politics, communication, and religion. The book won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Another book in the Hainish cycle is The Dispossessed (1974), which depicts an utopian society on an alien planet, Anarres. Life on Anarres is contrasted with its twin world, Urras, when an Anarrean physicist visits Urras. Urras is characterized by rampant consumerism and materialism, as well as vast disparities between rich and poor. But as in most utopias, the Anarrean society is revealed to also have problems, such as societal pressure to conform and restrict scientific discovery. The novel won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards.

Other books in the Hainish cycle include: Rocannon’s World (1966); Planet of Exile (1966); City of Illusions (1967); The Word for World Is Forest (1976); Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995); and The Telling (2000).

Le Guin has written several standalone science fiction novels as well. The Lathe of Heaven (1971) is a speculative novel about a man whose dreams can alter reality. When he awakes, he may find the world entirely changed, and he is the only one who remembers how things used to be. He meets a psychiatrist who begins manipulating the changes, resulting in more and more destructive scenarios caused by unforeseen consequences. The Lathe of Heaven stretches the “what if” scenario to its outermost limits. The novel won the Locus Award.

A very different book is Always Coming Home (1985), which is set in a far future California. Following some kind of apocalyptic event, society has regressed to something resembling the culture of the early Americans, and the book might be considered fantasy except for a network of computers, left over from the earlier age, that continues to record the people’s history. The book is not a novel per se, but rather a collection of folklore, stories, poetry, anthropological record, and one long novella that together provide a picture of this utopian society.

While these selections are among Le Guin’s best known books, they represent a small portion of her oeuvre. Le Guin has also published several pure fantasy novels for young adults in the Earthsea and Annals of the Western Shore series; alternate histories about the fictional European country of Orsinia; Lavinia, a retelling of the events in The Aeneid from Lavinia’s point of view; several books for children; and many poetry and short story collections.

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Retrospective: Octavia Butler

Octavia Estelle Butler signing a copy of Fledg...
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Octavia Butler was one of the few female African-American science fiction writers, and her novels featured black women protagonists, rare in science fiction. But even more importantly, her books were genuinely moving, frequently thought-provoking and sometimes harshly critical of her fellow human beings. Butler was the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and she also received a lifetime achievement award from the PEN American Center. Unfortunately, she died in 2006, cutting her spectacular career short.

Her first novel to be published, Patternmaster (1976), actually ended up being the fifth novel in her Patternist series. In that series, Butler began exploring themes she would later flesh out more fully, of a dystopian future in which American society completely breaks down and of aliens interbreeding with humans to produce a new species. The Patternist series was collected in the book Seed to Harvest (2007): Mind of My Mind (1977); Wild Seed (1980), which is actually the first book chronologically; Clay’s Ark (1984); and Patternmaster. Butler declined to bring the fifth book in the series, Survivor (1978), back into print because of her dislike for it.

Butler followed the Patternist series with the much stronger Xenogenesis series, later collected as Lilith’s Brood (2000): Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). In this series, Butler imagines a far future after Earth has suffered an apocalyptic nuclear war. The only remaining humans were rescued by aliens called Oankali and kept asleep until the planet recovered. The first human to be awakened, Lilith, develops a special bond with some of the aliens. She is also given the responsibility of transitioning the other awakened humans and letting them know the conditions for their release back on Earth: to either cross-breed with the aliens and create a new species altogether, or to give up any chance for reproduction.

Butler also published a standalone time travel novel, Kindred (1979). A modern American black woman, Dana, uncontrollably travels several times to antebellum Maryland, where she must live for long periods as a slave. Kindred is Butler’s version of the traditional slave narrative, yet told through the voice of a contemporary character.

Butler’s best works were her two Parable novels: Parable of the Sower (1993) and its sequel Parable of the Talents (1998). Set in a near future in which American society has broken down due to extreme poverty and environmental destruction, the Parable books are both unflinchingly brutal and quietly hopeful. Lauren Olamina, the heroine of the series, invents a new religion called Earthseed, which posits that humankind’s only hope is to spread out into the universe and sow new societies, like seeds. Parable of the Talents won the Nebula Award for best novel.

In addition to these novels, Butler published a collection of short stories, Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995). Her final novel was Fledgling (2005), a vampire novel.Reblog this post [with Zemanta]